Literature of Singapore

Literature of Singapore

The literature of Singapore comprises a collection of literary works by Singaporeans in any of the country's four main languages: English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil.

While Singaporean literary works may be considered as also belonging to the literature of their specific languages, the literature of Singapore is viewed as a distinct body of literature portraying various aspects of Singapore society and forms a significant part of the culture of Singapore. A number of Singaporean writers such as Tan Swie Hian and Kuo Pao Kun have contributed work in more than one language. However, this cross-linguistic fertilisation is becoming increasingly rare and it is now increasingly thought that Singapore has four sub-literatures instead of one.

Literature in English


Singaporean literature in English started with the Straits-born Chinese community in the colonial era; it is unclear which was the first work of literature in English published in Singapore, but there is evidence of Singapore literature published as early as the 1830s. The first notable Singaporean work of poetry in English is possibly "F.M.S.R.", a pastiche of T. S. Eliot by Francis P. Ng, published in London in 1935. This was followed by Wang Gungwu's "Pulse" in 1950.

With the independence of Singapore in 1965, a new wave of Singapore writing emerged, led by Edwin Thumboo, Arthur Yap, Goh Poh Seng, Lee Tzu Pheng and Chandran Nair. It is telling that many critical essays on Singapore literature name Thumboo's generation, rightly or wrongly, as the first generation of Singapore writers. Poetry is the predominant mode of expression; it has a small but respectable following since independence, and most published works of Singapore writing in English have been in poetry.

There were varying levels of activity in succeeding decades until the late 1990s when poetry in English in Singapore found a new momentum with a whole new generation of poets under the age of 40 now actively writing and publishing, not only in Singapore but also internationally. Since the late-1990s, local small presses such as Firstfruits and Ethos Books have been actively promoting the works of this new wave of poets. Some of the more notable include Boey Kim Cheng, Alvin Pang, Cyril Wong, Felix Cheong and Alfian bin Sa'at (also a playwright). The poetry of this younger generation is often politically aware, transnational and cosmopolitan, yet frequently presents their intensely focused, self-questioning and highly individualised perspectives of Singaporean life, society and culture. Some poets have been labeled Confessional for their personalised writing, often dealing with intimate issues such as sexuality.


Drama in English found expression in Goh Poh Seng, who was also a notable poet and novelist, in Robert Yeo, author of 6 plays, and in Kuo Pao Kun, who also wrote in Chinese, sometimes translating his works into English. The late Kuo was a vital force in the local theatre renaissance in the 1980s and 1990s. He was the artistic director of Substation for many years. Some of his plays, like "The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole" (1984) and "Lao Jiu" (1990), have been now considered classics. Stella Kon gained international fame with her now-famous play "". About an ageing Peranakan matriarch, it has been produced in Scotland, Malaysia and Australia. The sole character has been played by men as well as women.


Fiction writing in English did not start in earnest until after independence. Short stories flourished as a literary form, the novel arrived much later. Goh Poh Seng remains a pioneer in writing novels well before many of the later generation, with titles like "If We Dream Too Long" (1972) – widely recognised as the first true Singaporean novel – and "A Dance of Moths" (1995).

Although she began as a short story writer, Penang-born Catherine Lim has been Singapore's most widely read author, thanks partly to her first two books of short stories, "Little Ironies: Stories of Singapore" (1978) and "Or Else, The Lightning God and Other Stories" (1980). These two books were incorporated as texts for the GCSE. Lim's themes of Asian male chauvinistic gender-dominance mark her as a distant cousin to Asian-American writers such as Amy Tan. She has also been writing novels, such as "The Bondmaid" (1998) and "Following the Wrong Gods Home" (2001), and publishing them to an international audience since the late 1990s.

Han May is the pseudonym of Joan Hon who is better known for her non-fiction books. Her science-fiction romance "Star Sapphire" (1985) won a High Commendation Award from the Book Development Council of Singapore in 1986, the same year when she was also awarded a Commendation prize for her better-known book "Relatively Speaking" on her family and childhood memories.

Rex Shelley hails from an earlier colonial generation, although he began publishing only in the early 1990s. His first novel "The Shrimp People" (1991) won a National Book Prize. He has won the S.E.A. Write Award in 2007.

Su-Chen Christine Lim's works consider themes surrounding issues of gender. In 1993, her novel, "Fistful of Colours", was awarded the first Singapore Literature Prize. Her other novels take up the relationship between the Malays and Chinese immigrants in colonial Malaya, and the issue of land.

Gopal Baratham, a neurosurgeon, started as a short story writer and later wrote politically-charged works like "A Candle or the Sun" (1991) and "Sayang" (1991), which courted some controversy when they were first published.

Augustine Goh Sin Tub who began his writing career writing in Malay, burst on the literary scene after his retirement with more than a dozen books of short stories, most of which were founded on his own personal history, thus making them part fiction and part non-fiction. Works like "One Singapore" and its two sequels "One Singapore 2" and "One Singapore 3" have found fans among the different strata of Singapore society and well acclaimed by all.

Around this time, younger writers emerged. Clare Tham and Ovidia Yu wrote short stories, while playwright Stella Kon put forth her lesser-known science-fiction novel, "Eston" (1995). Of the younger generation, Philip Jeyaretnam has shown promise but has not published a new novel since "Abraham's Promise" (1995). His first two books, "First Loves" (1987) and "Raffles Place Ragtime" (1988), were bestsellers in Singapore.

Kelvin Tan, a musician and playwright, has been sporadically in sight, publishing the seminal works "All Broken Up and Dancing" (1992) and the "Nethe(r);R" (2001). Colin Cheong can perhaps lay claim to being one of Singapore's most prolific contemporary authors, releasing three novels, one novella, two short story collections, and dozens of non-fictional works thus far. He won the Singapore Literature Prize in 1996 for his novel and travel diary "Tangerine". Daren Shiau's "Heartland" (1999), a novel of an eighteen-year-old's rites of passage from junior college through to enlistment and thereafter, has been selected to be a set text at secondary school level.

List of Singaporean writers

*Aaron Lee, poet and lawyer
*Abdul Ghani Bin Abdul Hamid
*Alfian Sa'at, playwright, poet and fiction writer
*apoet, dark, sad and disturbed poet of
*Muhammad Ariff Ahmad
*Gopal Baratham, neurosurgeon and writer
*Boey Kim Cheng, poet
*Colin Cheong, poet and novelist
*Felix Cheong, Poet
*Michael Chiang, playwright
*Rohani Din
*Ivy Goh Nair, Journalist and writer
*Goh Poh Seng, poet and novelist
*Han May, novelist and writer
*Philip Jeyaretnam, novelist and lawyer
*Rama Kannabiran
*Russell Lee
*Jeffery T.H. Lee, poet
*Lee Tzu Pheng, poet
*Liang Wern Fook
*Catherine Lim, novelist
*Su-Chen Christine Lim, novelist
*Shirley Lim, poet and critic
*Chandran Nair, poet and Artist
*Alvin Pang, poet and editor
* Villayil Raman Gopala Pillai, Malayalam Novelist
*Daren Shiau, poet, novelist and lawyer
*Rex Shelley, novelist
*Robert Yeo, playwright and Poet
*Kirpal Singh, poet and critic
*Huzir Sulaiman, playwright
*Hwee Hwee Tan, novelist
*Colin Tan, poet
*Kelvin Tan, musician, playwright and novelist
*Tan Swie Hian, poet, translator, calligrapher, and artist
*Simon Tay, poet and lawyer
*Tan Tarn How, playwright
*Edwin Thumboo, poet and academic
*I Ulaganathan
*James Villanueva, textbook-writer, poet, novelist, playwright
*Cyril Wong, poet and countertenor
*Eleanor Wong, academic lawyer and playwright
*Arthur Yap, poet
*Yeow Kai Chai, poet and journalist
*Yim Kein Kwok, novelist and architect
*Yong Shu Hoong, poet
*Ovidia Yu, playwright and novelist

Selected works


*"After the Hard Hours, This Rain" - Chandran Nair (1975)
*"All Broken Up and Dancing" - Kelvin Tan (1992)
*"Army Daze" - Michael Chiang (1984)
*"Star Sapphire" - Han May (1985)
*"Below: Absence" - Cyril Wong (2002)
*"The Bondmaid" - Catherine Lim (1995)
*"The Brink of an Amen" - Lee Tzu Pheng (1991)
*"Eight Plays" - Huzir Sulaiman (2002)
*"Escape from Paradise" - John & May Chu Harding (2001)
*"First Loves" - Philip Jeyaretnam (1988)
*"Fistful Of Colours" - Su-Chen Christine Lim (1993)
*"Foreign Bodies" - Hwee Hwee Tan (1997)
*"Frottage" - Yong Shu Hoong (2005)
*"I Chose to Climb" - Colin Tan (2001)
*"I Remember May" - Yim Kein Kwok (2001)
*"If We Dream Too Long" - Goh Poh Seng (1973)
*"Mammon Inc." - Hwee Hwee Tan (2001)
*"Man Snake Apple" - Arthur Yap (1988)
*"the Nethe(r);R" - Kelvin Tan (2001)
*"Once the Horsemen and Other Poems' - Chandran Nair (1972)
*"Ricebowl" - Su-Chen Christine Lim (1984)
*"Singapore Accent" - Ivy Goh Nair,aka B J Wu (1980)
*" [ The Sea is Never Full] " - Jeffery T.H. Lee (1994)
*"The Shrimp People" - Rex Shelley (1991)
*"The Space of City Trees" - Arthur Yap (2000)
*"The Stolen Child" - Colin Cheong (1989)
*"A Third Map" - Edwin Thumboo (1993)
*"City of Rain" - Alvin Pang (2003)
*"Unmarked Treasure" - Cyril Wong (2004)
*"The Visage of Terrorism - The Hounds of Hell" - James Villanueva (2006/2004)
*"A Visitation of Sunlight" - Aaron Lee (1997)
*"Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light" - Cyril Wong (2007)
*"The Lies That Build a Marriage" - Suchen Christine Lim (2007)


甜咸人生 — 尤今(1982)

橡胶树 — 王润华(1997)

众山围绕 — 刘瑞金(2001)

老人题材 — 蓉子(2004)


*"Jangan Tak Ada" (collection of poems) - Muhammad Ariff Ahmad (1990)
*"Diari Bonda" (Mother's Diary) - Rohani Din (1997)
* "Anugerah Buat Syamsiah" (An Award for Syamsiah) - Rohani Din (2001)


*"Cantana Kinnam" - I Ulaganathan (1966)

See also

* Culture of Singapore
* Singapore gay literature

External links

* [ "Quarterly Literary Review Singapore"]
* [ Singapore literature]
* [ Poetry in Singapore]
* ['s/doc/7.html Introduction to "Second Tongue"]
* [ Singapore individual Poets]

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